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PolyGram Exec Demoted for Racial Remarks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A top PolyGram executive has been demoted after suggesting in a court deposition that if record companies were prevented from hiring people with criminal records, no African Americans would be working in the music industry.

The remark triggered a furor within the Dutch-owned entertainment conglomerate that is expected to continue today with a meeting at PolyGram’s New York headquarters between company Chairman Alain Levy and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The controversy stems from a statement made three weeks ago during a deposition by Eric Kronfeld, president and chief operating officer of PolyGram’s domestic music division. Kronfeld, who oversees legal affairs and human relations for PolyGram’s U.S. labels, was one of several top executives ordered to testify last month in connection with a lawsuit filed against PolyGram’s Island Records by R&B; act Dru Hill, which is seeking to terminate its contract.

Asked why the company allowed a man with a criminal record to be hired, Kronfeld replied: “If every African American male in the United States was disqualified from pursuing a livelihood, in any way, shape or form, because of a prior criminal record, then there would be no, or virtually no, African American employees in our society or in our industry.”

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PolyGram dismissed Kronfeld as a member of the corporation’s worldwide management board Oct. 22, five days after he made the statement.

Jackson, who was called upon by an attorney representing Dru Hill, said in a telephone interview, “Eric Kronfeld’s statement is insulting, and I think it says a lot about the environment at PolyGram. It’s racist and offensive and it exposes a deeper malady within the corporation. This is a man who holds a position of power at the biggest record corporation in the world--a company where patterns of race and sex exclusion are substantial.”

A representative for PolyGram disagreed on Monday with Jackson’s assessment of the company’s hiring practices of minorities, but also distanced itself from Kronfeld’s statement.

“Eric Kronfeld made a statement with which we strongly disagree,” said PolyGram spokeswoman Dawn Bridges. “But that statement does not reflect his views. During the seven years he has been at PolyGram, there is no evidence in word or deed of racist behavior on his part.”

Kronfeld declined comment, but sources say he has since apologized for the remark in a letter to Dru Hill’s attorney.

In recent years, Jackson has made a practice out of attacking corporations that he feels do not hire or promote minorities fairly. He said it’s time to scrutinize PolyGram and other companies in the music industry, where black male and female artists generate huge profits but rarely participate in the running of corporations.

Dru Hill, whose self-titled debut album has sold more than 1 million copies since its release last year, sued PolyGram in July seeking to break its contract because of an “invidious terrorist campaign” of “violent and coercive” acts orchestrated against the group by Island and its agents.

The young quartet’s case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 17 in New York Superior Court. But sources say the suit is likely to be resolved this week in an out-of-court settlement resulting in a multimillion-dollar advance and upgraded royalty rate for Dru Hill. As part of the deal, the group and its production company, University Entertainment, may also end up being moved from Island to PolyGram’s Mercury or A&M; Records division.

Dru Hill’s lawsuit stems from an altercation at a nightclub in Atlanta on May 18 involving Hiriam Hicks, president of Island’s black music division, and Dru Hill’s manager Keith Ingram and attorney Londell McMillan.

According to the suit, Hicks and his brother Joshua, whom the suit describes as an armed bodyguard, threatened and then assaulted Ingram and McMillan. Hiriam Hicks, the suit says, attacked Ingram with a pool cue, and Hicks’ brother pummeled and kicked Ingram and McMillan in front of the group.

No criminal charges were filed against Hicks or his brother.

On Oct. 17, allegations about Joshua Hicks’ criminal record were raised during depositions in Dru Hill’s civil case, sources said. Attorneys for the group asked Kronfeld if he was aware of Joshua Hicks’ rap sheet, which they said included nearly a dozen arrests for drug and assault violations over a 10-year period, sources said.

In a discussion about Kronfeld’s responsibilities for human relations at PolyGram, Dru Hill’s attorney asked Kronfeld whether it was appropriate to allow an employee with a criminal record to conduct business for the firm, sources said. It was in response to this question that Kronfeld made the remark.

McMillan became so enraged by Kronfeld’s response that he left the room and refused to return to the deposition. Three days later, Kronfeld wrote McMillan a letter to apologize and to explain that his statement did not reflect his views about African Americans. On Oct. 22, Levy removed Kronfeld from PolyGram’s worldwide management board.

McMillan then contacted Jackson, who wrote Levy a letter Oct. 27 criticizing Kronfeld’s “racially offensive and false” statements. Jackson had a phone conversation with Levy on Friday, and the two decided to meet in person today to discuss Jackson’s concerns about racial inequality at PolyGram.

“We are going to discuss the patterns of hiring,” Jackson said. “Ever since the days of slavery, we have been [top-quality] entertainers, but we are always locked out of the corporate offices and kept in the basement of the industry . We deserve our share of decision-making positions.”


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